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ONEThe day color bled from the world
T-minus five days. Five long and torturous days until school was out for the summer. Not a moment too soon either. My math teacher, Ms. Vanderbilt, kept me in after-school tutoring the whole year. She said I was gifted, but to be honest, I had no clue what she was talking about half the time. My brain felt as lumpy as the vanilla pudding they served in the cafeteria on Mondays. “Practice makes perfect, Maya,” Ms. Vanderbilt chimed at her desk. “Get to work.” “Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled back as I stared at the chalkboard. Only the top of her red ’fro poked out from behind the tower of papers. If she didn’t give so many quizzes, she wouldn’t have a stack of tests to grade that stretched from Chicago to LA. Today she had me working on situational math, and my head hurt just thinking about all the steps needed to solve the problem. She had written a recipe for candy apples and the price of the ingredients. Apples, Popsicle sticks, sugar, food coloring, corn syrup. I had to figure out how much it would cost to make fifty candy apples. This wasn’t really rocket science, but math took time and focus, both of which I was short on. Ms. Vanderbilt got worked up about fractions and decimals the way my friend Frankie got excited about science projects. Now, Frankie, she was a genius. She had the grades and IQ to prove it. But to me, math was about as interesting as watching paint dry, which was actually a thing I had to do for art class once. I glanced over my shoulder at the clock on the wall. Fifteen more minutes, then goodbye, school—hello, weekend. Papa was due back from his work trip. I bit my lip, wondering what he’d bring me this time. My favorite gift was the red-and-gold sash he swore belonged to the great orisha Oya from my favorite comic book. Oya wasn’t real. So, of course, the sash wasn’t really hers. Still, it was pretty, and I wore it to school for a week straight. I dragged the chalk across the board, taking my sweet time. No way was I squeezing in another math problem before four o’clock. As long as Ms. Vanderbilt heard the sound of writing, she would keep her attention on grading papers and not on me. As I worked out the cost of one candy apple, a shadow fell outside the window. I was trying to concentrate, but something edged at the back of my mind. It was the same feeling I had in gym class the other day when we were stretching on our mats after track. I spotted something wrong with the ceiling—like it was splitting open. But when I blinked, it was gone. My gaze slid to the window, and my eyes slipped out of focus. My vision faded in and out. The world pulsed like a heartbeat, getting bigger, then smaller, then bigger again. The birds in the oak tree stopped chirping. I couldn’t even hear the hum of cars on the streets anymore. The sound of the ticking clock on the wall vibrated in my ears. Seconds stretched into minutes. My anemia made me dizzy sometimes, but it usually didn’t last long. I leaned my shoulder against the wall next to the chalkboard and squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for it to pass. At least it wasn’t happening in the middle of something important again. Last week my team lost the kickball tournament when my anemia struck. Most of the kids didn’t blame me, but I still felt horrible. When the dizziness went away, I opened my eyes again and my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The color bled from the world like someone was sucking it away through a straw. The window was gray. So were the trees, the sky, and the school flag. At first, I thought the sun hid behind the clouds, but this was something else. Something was wrong. Black lightning etched across the sky like ripples moving on the surface of a lake. I snapped my head around to look at Ms. Vanderbilt, my heart thundering against my chest. She was still hunched over her papers, but she was frozen. Not frozen like a Popsicle, but frozen as if time had stopped. I wiped my sweaty hands on my pants. Frankie would say there has to be a reasonable explanation, but nope, there was nothing reasonable about this. This was bad, really bad. “Ms. Vanderbilt?” I said, my voice shaking. When she didn’t answer, I blinked twice, unable to think. Then as if someone waved their wand and put everything right, the leaves on the tree changed from ash gray to dull yellow to green. Birdsong poured into the classroom again. Cars droned on the streets. Voices drifted in from the hall. “My goodness, Maya,” Ms. Vanderbilt said suddenly. “I didn’t mean to keep you late.” I jumped so hard that the chalk fell from my hand and cracked in two on the floor. Leaning around her papers, my math teacher frowned at me. By the puzzled look on her face, Ms. Vanderbilt hadn’t seen the bleeding gray or the black lightning. She’d been in some kind of trance the whole time. If I told her what happened, she’d laugh and say that I had a vivid imagination. I stared up at the clock again. It was now four fifteen. Thirty minutes had passed in what felt like seconds. Maybe I was daydreaming and it was my imagination. I pressed my lips together, deciding to keep my mouth shut. A crash rang in the hallway, and both Ms. Vanderbilt and I turned to the door. My friend Eli pressed his face against the glass, his fist ready to knock again. He smiled, his freckles standing out against his light brown skin. Ms. Vanderbilt shook her head at him. Before she could dismiss me, I shrugged into my coat and threw my backpack across my shoulder. My math teacher squinted at my unfinished work. “We’ll continue Monday.” “Yes, Ms. Vanderbilt,” I grumbled, and jetted into the hallway, where Eli was playing with his phone. A few other kids were in the hall too, coming from extracurricular activities or tutoring or, like Eli, detention. He had a knack for getting in trouble. This morning he put a frog in our English teacher’s desk because she gave him a C-minus on his paper about famous ghosts. She couldn’t prove Eli did it, but he doubled over laughing when she screamed. So he got detention for that. Eli glanced up from his phone and frowned. “Was tutoring that bad?” I sucked in a deep breath. “I’ll tell you later.” Once outside, Eli and I stood with a group of kids waiting to cross the street. But Zane, the crossing guard, and his bloodhound weren’t directing traffic. Instead, he was talking to Principal Ollie, whose gray suit and yellow tie were impeccable. Some parents had trouble remembering Principal Ollie’s pronouns were they and them, not him or her. But everyone I knew got it. “What’s his malfunction?” an eighth grader whispered to his friend. I couldn’t tell if he meant Zane or his dog, General, who was howling at the sky. The crossing guard’s hands curled into fists at his sides as he said something too low to hear. I wondered—no I hoped—he’d seen something too. No way was I the only one who saw the world turn gray. If he’d seen something, then that meant I really hadn’t lost my mind. Principal Ollie patted Zane on the shoulder, and he winced and waved for us to cross. The hound stopped howling and wagged his tail. On the way home, I broke down and told Eli everything. He bounced on his toes the whole time and asked me so many questions that my head spun again. “Did you feel a cold spot?” Eli asked. “Like when there’s a ghost around.” I shook my head at his latest question. “I can’t remember.” “Did you sense a new presence in the room?” We cut across a vacant lot covered in trampled weeds between two buildings. Some kids from Jackson Middle’s soccer team—the Jaguars—were dribbling and passing a ball between them as they took the same path. “No,” I answered, still trying to make sense of what I’d seen. We ducked out of the way of a man speeding down the sidewalk on a sky-blue Divvy bike. He rushed to the rental station next to us and shoved his bike into an open slot. Looking at the row of bikes, I kept expecting to see a smudge of gray, or black lightning. But everything was as it should be. “You know there’s a bike lane, right?” Eli yelled at the man walking away. Glancing to my feet, I said, “You think I’m making this up?” Eli adjusted his backpack straps. “Heck no. Earlier this week Priyanka said she saw two crows talking to each other.” If something weird happened, people always told Eli. He was the king of weird. “What do you mean, talking?” As we crossed Ashland Avenue, cars honked their horns, and traffic stood bumper to bumper. People coming and leaving the shops on both sides of the avenue were as loud and noisy as the traffic. “The way we’re talking now,” Eli said, a goofy look on his face. I swallowed the lump in my throat. “What were they saying?” Eli shrugged. “Priyanka said they spoke in a language she’d never heard before.” “What’s your theory?” I asked. “Sometimes ghosts can inhabit the bodies of the living.” Eli grinned as if he’d been waiting for his moment of glory. “I guess they would’ve wanted to inhabit human bodies, but hey, wandering spirits can’t be choosy. Priyanka showed me the video on her phone. For a second you see the two crows facing each other and then the screen turns gray. Even the sound went out.” “Gray?” I asked as we passed the corner store. My eyes landed on the empty crate against the barred window. That was Ernest’s spot. He was always around after school, tapping his foot and playing the harmonica tangled in his bushy beard. Not seeing him was one more strange thing to add to an already strange day. Ghosts seemed unlikely, but at this point, they were better than an alien invasion. “Have you heard of anything like this before?” “No,” he said, his voice hopeful, “but I’ll do some research this weekend.” We stopped in front of his grandmother’s three-story greystone building. Jayla, his little sister, knocked on the window on the top floor and waved at us. She and Eli shared the same freckled face, light brown skin, and hazel eyes. I waved back, and she poked out her tongue at Eli, who grinned at her and poked out his tongue too. “Are you going to tell your parents?” Eli asked. I shrugged. “Maybe later.” I didn’t want to worry Mama. Besides, maybe none of it was real. After listening to Papa’s stories about his adventures all my life, maybe my imagination was as wild as his. I wouldn’t tell my parents for now. That was my first mistake of many more to come. Had I known what lurked in the shadows that day, then maybe I would’ve made a different choice.